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There is a very specific form of discomfit in reading this collection of essays. Particularly for a middle-aged man, growing up in particular urban culture, and still mired in the education system. Powley is a social studies teacher who really can write essays.
The essays vary in form and length, and some are written in the third person. But all weave together consistent themes of grief, bordering on despair, and the restless search for new ground (often overseas), while exploring colonial New Zealand history. This involves going with his class to Opotiki, to learn about Rev. Volkner’s ghastly death and its local context; as well as a deconstruction of Anzac Day myths.
The title of the book is also that of the first essay, which sets the scene in many ways, both personally and culturally. The grief is for mostly men, first a friend named Matt who dies of natural causes in London. Along the way there are elegies for students who have committed suicide. And by the end we reach into the grief for his father, who died relatively young, and was never replaced as a parent. It is Powley senior that appears on the book’s cover, looking out over a braided river, on a bridge built in 1963. This isn’t made clear in the book, even if he remains a kind of presence within.
A lot of the content involves the teacher talking out of school, rather literally. This seems to be alright if the names are changed, and the schools are unnamed, but some of the language is unfortunate. The key one is titled ‘The March of Progress’, and is something of a masterpiece, if you can cope with the younger protagonists dying, and Powley’s guilt as a Dean, at leaving the particular school prematurely. The weave of historical context, based in the Wellington suburb of Berhampore, and the Japanese experience, both in a school trip and his own feeling for the culture, is rather brilliant.
Powley’s longer essays are written in numbered sections, and this allows jump cuts to other themes. In ‘Time Never Cares’ one of the sections is simply a quote, and the many references to other writers does not necessarily add to the elegy. Also, the fourth and seventh sections begin with the same paragraph, word for word, about a photograph of the young John-Paul and his mother in an awkward first day of school pose. He understands the first day nerves better, perhaps, than the distaff side of his family.
For me, the essay titled ‘Pastoral Scene’ is problematic. He seems to actually refer to the concept of ‘pastoral care’, as described in an opening quote from Judith Collins (Powley likes to quote from correspondence with National Party cabinet ministers). This revolves around his work as a Dean at the earlier school and a time capsule which is opened as the cohort leaves that school. He includes sections of dialogue with recalcitrant students, usually of Māori heritage. An analogy is introduced based on the writing of Eric Blair (George Orwell), and his shooting of an elephant while working as a colonial administrator in India, who had to be seen to please the natives. The theme seems to be the difficulty of disciplining children who are already a lost cause.
I’m reminded of an incident at my high school, when a social studies teacher was assaulted in class, but chose not to take any action. He left teaching and went on to be big in the financial world.
Powley’s last two essays concern the walk-out of the classroom by his late father, the suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell, and the taking anti-depressants. These stories descend into swearing and self pity without resolution.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays
by J. P. Powley
Published by Seraph Press